As we look through our life with a storytelling lens, we might ask ourselves: do good followers of Jesus have antagonists?
Yes, we do!
Keep in mind that antagonist doesn’t mean villain or enemy, although in a story they might be. Rather, an antagonist is anyone or anything that stands in the way to the protagonist achieving his or her goals. An antagonist can be an enemy, but doesn’t need to be, as an antagonist can oppose our goal for many reasons (their reasons may be good or bad or neutral). An antagonist may not even be a person but force, and have no reason at all. In my experience, many of us have antagonists but few of us have the kinds of real enemies or villains that we see in the movies.
It’s helpful to think about how we, as followers of Jesus, may want to respond to those people in our lives who, in some way, distract us from or stand in the way of our discernment. (Later, we’ll look at other obstacles to discerning.)
In addition to a loving relationship with God, the most important condition for a genuine discernment is freedom: freedom to hear God’s invitation, and freedom to choose how to respond. The people in our lives can either help us towards freedom, or block our journey to freedom. Yet, even when someone seems to “block” our discernment and our freedom, their antagonism may be the resistance we need to discover a deeper freedom. Their resistance may also push us to a new level of commitment in seeking God’s will.
For example, Joe, a husband and father, is discerning if God is calling him to move from his current stable job to a new kind of work—perhaps as an entrepreneur doing the kind of work that has always been his dream. The people in Joe’s life will be important in his discernment. His wife, his parents, his friends, his children, his co-workers—each person will have his or her own idea about what Joe should do. Their ideas may be motivated by love for Joe, selfish concerns, or a mix of any number of motives, ranging from the desire for support and stability for his family, to fear of the new or unknown, doubts in an unproven ability, a desire to maintain the status quo, etc. Most likely Joe’s wife will have the most important role and influence—she has a unique prominence in Joe’s discernment as his wife. Ideally, Joe and his wife will discern God’s will for their family together.
Let’s suppose that, while Joe’s wife is fearful of how a change of work will affect their family’s financial stability, she loves Joe and shares his faith, so she supports his discernment. But a close friend—perhaps someone who has always been Joe’s strongest support—is adamant that Joe should continue doing exactly what he’s doing. Joe respects his friend’s opinion, and owes him alot for the support he has given to Joe and his family in the past. What does Joe do with the friend’s unhelpful advice and expectations?
It’s pretty clear that, as an adult responsible to God, his wife, and his children for living his life and call, Joe cannot simply listen to his friend blindly, even though their friendship means a lot to him. This friend is not just not helping Joe discern; the friend is antagonistic to Joe’s discernment, and has become a force against discerning at all. How does Joe handle this so that he can freely discern?
Depending on their friendship, Joe may use his friend’s negative response to explore his own feelings and motivations—whether during or after their conversations. After several attempts at discussion—perhaps after his second or tenth conversation—Joe might simply want to close this topic with his friend until he has completed his discernment. He may even call or visit his friend a little less frequently so that he is able to detach somewhat from the pressure of his expectations. Note that the friend’s resistance to Joe’s desire to discern can actually help him to focus and deepen his own reflection.
(Also note that it’s not the relationship itself that ends; Joe simply tries to put an end to fruitless discussion about his discernment. While there may be cases where we decide that it’s better to end a relationship or put it on hold so that we can freely discern, this usually has more to do with how the relationship has been developing, rather than the discernment itself. The discernment just becomes the “breaking point” where a shift or end of a relationship is recognized is inevitable.)
In any discernment, we want to choose carefully when and with whom we share our journey. We need the input of others, but we also need to be free to hear and listen to the other ways that God might be speaking to us—especiallyl interiorly. This is especially true for a young person discerning a vocation to marriage, religious life, priesthood, or single life, as pressures are sure to arise from all directions. Many people don’t understand well the vocation to priesthood or religious life, which makes it hard for them to be supportive even when they want to be.
For a number of reasons, I didn’t share my discernment journey with too many people—just several sisters and a few family members. But afterwards, when I shared my decision to enter religious life with family and friends, I was sometimes surprised by their reactions. Some friends whom I thought wouldn’t understand were supportive, pleased at how happy I was. Others—relatives who were faithful Catholics—surprised me by strongly opposing my decision, expressing concern that I was “wasting my life” by choosing religious life. Some of them tried to pressure me to change my mind.
Everyone with whom we are connected can influence our discernment. People can be supportive, cautionary, resistant, encouraging…the responses are as varied as the people you know. Choosing how and when to share our discernment, and with whom, is what we will explore next.